’night, Mother is a two-hander that opens like a comedy sketch. ‘I’m going to kill myself, Mama,’ says Jessie. She’s cleaning a pistol and loading it with bullets. ‘I’ll shoot myself in a couple of hours.’ The pair live together in a lonely farmhouse, and Jessie wants to make sure her mother will be able to cope after her death. She tours the kitchen explaining where the fuses and the cleaning materials are kept. Mama, who doesn’t seem unduly alarmed, offers to phone her son and get him to thwart the suicide attempt. ‘I’ll just have to do it before he gets here,’ says Jessie.
This is an intensely dramatic set-up which ought to be either gripping or hilarious, or both. Somehow it lacks punch. The script, by Marsha Norman, has the kind of homely wit that we associate with Alan Bennett. Jessie suffers from epilepsy which has prevented her from pursuing a career. She failed in telesales because ‘I didn’t even make enough money to pay the telephone bill’. And she was dismissed from a hospital gift shop: ‘I made people real uncomfortable smiling at them the way I did.’
Mama is adept at observational comedy too. She has a best friend, Agnes, whose clumsiness is legendary. ‘She’s burned down every house she ever lived in.’ The accidental fires became a local attraction. ‘One time she set out porch chairs and served lemonade.’ Agnes also has a passion for exotic birds which she purchases with borrowed money. ‘She’s still paying on the last parrot she bought.’ That’s a great line. But the danger is that these quirky off-stage characters will become more interesting than the personalities in the story. The viewer starts to wonder if the clumsy Agnes will show up and try to grab the pistol from the suicidal Jessie.